The Church and the End of the Welfare State

Throughout the post-Vatican II years, the U.S. bishops’ conference has typically defended the welfare state and not infrequently urged its expansion. Everyone familiar with the situation knows that this has had far more to do with the political predilections of certain conference staff members than with the settled judgment of the American episcopate–or with a careful application of the principles of Catholic social doctrine. But things are changing.

A new generation of bishops is not quite as sure as its predecessors that “social justice” always equals “government program.” The rise of aggressive secularism within both state and federal social welfare agencies has also been a sobering experience, as bishops across the country have found that the Church’s success in foster care or work with sex-trafficked women doesn’t count in the eyes of government bureaucrats determined to impose the LGBT and abortion-on-demand agendas with the funding tools at their disposal.

Catholic default positions in favor of shoring up, even expanding, the post-World War II American social welfare state must also be re-examined because of certain undeniable realities. Catholic social doctrine is a tradition of moral realism: it takes facts seriously. And the increasing burden of the evidence is that the social welfare state as we have known it is dying–and in fact deserves to die.

It is dying, in both Europe and the United States, because it is unaffordable. Shaky economic models and a demographic winter throughout the western world have combined to drive the social welfare state as we have known it into a fiscal wall (or over a fiscal cliff; choose your image). As my colleague Yuval Levin has put it, neither Europe or the United States can rationally or responsibly go where the long-term trends suggest we’re heading: “to debts that utterly overwhelm [our] productive capacities, governments that do almost nothing but support the elderly, and economies with no room for dynamism, for growth, or for youth.”

The social welfare state is also dying because it is grossly inefficient. The Progressive movement’s claim that government agencies run by specialists highly-trained in the social sciences could be compassionate, responsive and efficient has been falsified by reality. Social welfare bureaucracies just don’t work that way. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t good men and women doing noble work in government social welfare agencies; it means that the system itself is incapable of responding to the churnings of our times, the variety of human problems our culture creates, or the moral defects that underlie so many contemporary social pathologies.

And that, from a Catholic social doctrine point of view, is the key to understanding the demise of the post-World War II social welfare state: it’s eroded the moral culture that makes free and responsible citizenship in self-governing democracies possible. Yuval Levin again: “The attempt to rescue the citizen from the burdens of responsibility has undermined the family, self-reliance and self-government”–and it has done this, not from a lack of compassion or resources, but because the social welfare state by its nature creates dependencies that erode the virtues necessary for genuine human flourishing.

Rather than expending fruitless energies defending the social welfare state as we know it–in the first few months of 2012, the bishops’ conference (as represented by its domestic policy committee) issued letters urging renewed or expanded funding for some 20 federal social welfare programs–the Catholic Church in the United States should be at the forefront of exploring the path beyond the welfare state, stressing the moral and cultural dimensions of that necessary journey.

The Church has no special expertise in the technicalities of public policy; and in any event, the Church ought never have measured “social justice” by budget line-items. What the Church knows is the truth about the human person, and that truth includes the importance of responsibility, honesty, self-reliance and solidarity. Those just happen to be virtues essential to the free, dynamic and compassionate societies that moral reason and Catholic social doctrine call us to build in the post-welfare state future.

George Weigel


George Weigel is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., and the author, most recently, of The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II⎯The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy.

  • Observer

    The Church is very competent in the tecnicalities of public policy. It just doesn´t transfer that expertise, 2000 years of it, to secular arm, leaving that exclusively to the rulers (although pre 1789 society, it did so indirectly and behind the scenes, colaborating with the secular arm, and much before that, before the Protestant Revolution, when it had moral power to validate secular rulers and their legitimacy).

    My second point or critique is that the author does not say wat comes next. The aftermath. If the Welfare State is dying as well as those bishops who helped prop it up since Vatican II, what comes next? Neo’Liberalism? Look how that worked out in Latin America. Keeping the Central Bank System? Look where that has ended up. A return to unchecked crony capitalism (laise fare capitalis)? Catholic social teaching abhors it as it did socialism. 

    The true application of Catholic soicial doctrine were the regimes of Dolfuss, Salazar, Franco, and lesser extent de Valera and Peron (one may add the unapplied Distributism of Belloc and Chesterton).  Imperfect as they were, they were Post 1789 Catholic States. Catholic Social Doctrine is the prop for the modern Catholic State. Not for christrian Democracy, social democracy, or what ever ¨nonthreatening¨ secular ideology out there. 

    We are too far gone, thanks to Vatican II, to complete that request since Leo XIII up to Pius XII.  Like ancient Rome, we can only watch it crumble upon its own weight and see what happens next. before, the Germans scourged the empire but in the end became an essential part of the new Catholic states refered to as Christendom.  

    Will history repeat itself? Must a divine requested Marian consecration be necessary (depending if one believes it or not) We shall see. 

  • Free Market Catholic

     George, thank you, thank you, thank you. Finally, we get some clear-headed analysis of the link between the politics of ‘social justice’ and the prejudices of certain members of the US Bishops’ conference.

    I keep looking at Haiti, which is represented at being 95% Roman Catholic, indeed even had an ordained Catholic priest as it’s dictator/leader for a number of years. It is, and has been, the poster child for corruption, disease and criminality for the last 150 years. The ONLY years of relative peace and significant economic and progress in providing a useable infrastructure was during the much maligned occupation by US Marines from July of 1915 to August of 1934.

    Granted it wasn’t ‘heaven on earth’ during the occupation but the economy stabilized, roads were built, clear water provided, schools and hospitals built, etc.

    The RC church and hierarchy with all their success at spreading the faith – were absolutely helpless to help raise or even maintain the standard of living on their flock. ‘Social Justice’ is an excuse for envy, class warfare and destruction of any kind of competitive market.

    • Tisantir

       Market transactions are not exempt from the Commandment to Love Thy Neighbor, in this case the party you are transacting with.

      Where the will to love is missing, the acts, even promoting economic efficiency, would vitiate against the common good, broadly considered.

      For example, the so-called price-gouging in the face of scarcity, while promoting economic efficiency in the use of scarce resource, leads to resentment and decay of bonds of solidarity if the intent of the actor is to private profit and not the common good of promoting the best use of resource.

      That is, the intent of the actor matters, and this is exactly what the market liberals do not wish to hear.

      An act must aim at common good to be commendable. Thus is our quarrel with Adam Smith and his heirs who hold that a man must looks at his self-interest and the common good shall follow.

      In fact self-interest, if adequately enlightened is just common good. But the economists do not consider even self-interest now
      but merely satisfaction of desires. This is so since self-interest is a rational thing, obtained by rational thought while the
      desires require no reason.

  • Francis Wippel

    It’d be great to see the Church step back into its role of as one of the primary caretakers of the less fortunate, while the government scales back its role.  With the government social welfare programs initiated over the last 80 years, it has become very easy for the Church to cede its role as caregiver, and essentially replace that by voicing support for the government programs that were intended to fill the void left by the Church. 
    Let’s hope that finally, this disastrous experiment is coming to an end.  A greater role for the Church will require more vocations.  In retrospect, I can’t help but wonder if the fall-off in vocations to the religious life over the past few decades may have been in (no small) part due to the Church backing away from its role in meeting the needs of the poor.  The Church has much to contribute to the good of society that government programs cannot.  Let’s hope that’s a lesson that doesn’t have to be learned again.

    • Chris

      I certainly like this comment. Unfortunately, I don’t believe that the government will wind up scaling back its role. Fiscal realities are ultimately home-and-hearth realities. The government fisc obtains its benefices only from persons. Sadly, I fear that the government will simply prove unable to sustain its largess — and we laity will be called upon to step in not to assist but to render badly needed aid to large numbers of persons who will have simply been abandoned.

      The current reality is that the Church is being shoved to the side when it comes to acts of corporate charity. Catholic adoption agencies have closed in order to avoid compromising core Church teachings. Obamacare has made it clear that Catholic hospitals are next. Government programs will fill this vacuum, and governments will attempt to adequately fund them as well. In some cases, they will prove successful — let us indeed pray that they are successful, for real persons will depend on it, notwithstanding the moral cesspool from which such assistance shall emanate.In the end, however, the best endgame for government-run charity is Greece: government funding will no longer be sustainable and will simply evaporate. Worse cases abound in history: violent seizure of private property is the most common modern repetition of ancient mistakes. Mass murder (as in the case of the forced starvation of the people of Ukraine) is another possibility, if we are frank in our reading of history. We must of course pray that the end tends more towards the undoing of the Greek experiment and less towards the undoing of the Soviet experiment in the Ukraine. Unfortunately, there can be no soft landing in the long term.But whatever we pray for, it is grace we will receive, and grace builds on nature. If our corporate works have sunk overly deep into the cesspool of government-coerced charity, there will be little upon which grace can build. It may prove necessary to work on filling in the cesspool for an extended period of time before we can do very much in the way of serving direct needs.

  • Nick Palmer

    A sharply insightful piece. Thanks, George. A core issue is motivation — what influences people’s minute-by-minute decisions. Some loosely label this “culture.”

    Perhaps it would be useful to bring in some wisdom from the business world. One of the best thinkers about organizations and organizational behavior is Edgar Schein at MIT. Loosely paraphrased, he defines culture as:

    “The accumulated problem-solving routines of successful organizations.”

    How is this germane? First, it focuses on decisions — how people solve problems. Should I get more education? Should I work in the public sector or private sector? Should I marry? Should I let this man have sex with me? As many business academics and economists have noted (of particular note are Schein at MIT and Joseph Bower at HBS), people do not approach each situation in a tabula rasa/analytic fashion. They rely on heuristics and routines. The “context” (Bower’s term) refers to the rules and constraints built-in to the system. In business it might be a sales-bonus plan; in society it might be the rules for welfare eligibility or (!) for getting corporate tax breaks.

    Second, it emphasizes that act of accumulation. These “routines” accrete like silt in a river delta. Once in place, they become very difficult even to identify, much less to change or remove. As a strategy and organization consultant of many years, I spend much of my time as an organizational archaeologist finding routines and mapping their influence on business performance. Society is far, far more complex than even the most global firm. As Russell Kirk emphasized, the law of unintended consequence is inviolate.

    Third, note the term “successful.” Success is in the eye of the beholder/recipient. A fifteen-year-old mother in Appalachia will certainly feel successful upon receiving the boon of welfare-state largesse. A corporate titan will feel successful after negotiating a massive loan from Uncle Sammy (see, e.g., Solyndra).

    Unfortunately, the girl in Appalachia and the Solyndra backer are not isolated systems. As George points out, this trickle of booty (flood?) is increasingly rapidly draining the pool. It is beginning to have a significant effect on the culture/routines of another oft-missed part of the equation — those who fill the pool — entrepreneurs and taxpayers in general (a shrinking fraction of the population). We may be approaching failure as a society.

    Now to the bishops. Here I stray from my own expertise to my peril. This is George’s world. It seems to me that many rejoiced at the money tree represented by government largesse. This single-sourcing would be one heck of a lot simpler than soliciting support from many, many individuals. And, Siren gubmint could also smooth roadways for those in its favor. Like the young mother and the corporate barnacle, the path of least resistance called.

    Compound this with post-Vatican II distortions and the so-called spirit of the 60s (a precursor to the sex-abuse scandals??), the new “problem-solving routines” became ingrained.

    Now the questions is: “Have we gone too far to turn back?” In my opinion, the principal thrust of the Obama presidency, supported by the Reids and Pelosis, has been to push us (US) so far down the dependency road that we cannot reverse course. This is sadly like the thriller where the protagonist has only seconds to act before all is lost. Perhaps my pessimism is exaggerated and melodramatic. I pray that is it so.

    But, we do have the Holy Spirit. And, from my observation there are two trends that give me hope. First, the apparent proliferation of spines amongst the episcopate. Second, the exciting growth of strong-armed Catholicism among our young. God will steer, but we’d better keep rowing. 

  • JP

    We will probably see this transition from public welfare to Church supplied charity sooner rather than later. The year 2013 has better than a 50/50 chance that we will fall into another Recession no matter which party is at the helm. And, there is a bettert han 60-40 chance that most people and businesses will see significant increases in taxes beginning in 2013. With the public defecit slated to go above $16 trillion, no matter who is at the helm, spending will have to be trimmed. And the services for the truly poor will be the first to get axed.

    The Church can and does do great services for the poor in a number of areas – heating assistance, women’s shelters, food pantries, and fund raising for hospitals, homeless shelters, and child care. I’m afraid that in future years, the Church will be called on to do much, much more.

  • Lauren

    Interesting that this article would come out the day after I had the urge to contact this author about this very thing — from a little different perspective; that of “subsidiarity.”
     Mr. Weigel, you have a great knack to cut through the mud to bring forth clarity and I hoped to ask you to show how the USCCB has led the sheep astray by mistaking the obligation of the Church to help the poor through the current “Social Justice” teachings. 
    Last year when there was a large outcry regarding the CCHD giving millions to improper organizations and the huge pressure put upon pastors in some Dioceses to implement Marxist-leaning “Social Justice” programs like JustFaith, it hit me…subsidiarity.
    What good Catholic doesn’t want to help the poor? Yet, if we object to the way Social Justice is being taught and implemented, we are accused of just that.  Subsidiarity is very basically the belief that each person is best helped by those closest to the situation as those closest are often best able to assess, help and correct the problem.  Ever-widening concentric circles of help can be accessed, always within the context of Christian charity and the deep concern for the salvation of this person.  It is not the government’s job to take care of the poor — it’s our job as Christians.  The more we look to the government for help, the more we become beholden to them with their own agendas.  Take the HHS mandate as a perfect example of this — or the closing down of Catholic Charities in Illinois.
     I began to try and research the Church’s concept of Subsidiarity last year and came upon very little which clearly laid this out witin the context of our current dilemma.  I would love to see someone with a whole lot more ability than me try to explain and clarify this for all of us.

    • Margaret

      I remember decades ago a pastor asking me if I would help someone he called “deserving poor.”  At the time I was annoyed that he qualified the poor, but watching the way a whole class of people have exploited  welfare benefits without shame or being shamed, I now consider that we must again make that distinction.  If we did, we wouldn’t find our country bankrupt, nor would we be unable to give adequate help to those who are either permanently disabled or temporarily down on their luck.

    • Clement_W

      Tax-deductibility of charitable contributions had a lot to do with an ‘entitlement mentality’ of the American Church.

  • Pecuniary Matters


    George, thank you for writing this, it is a necessary accounting.


    As a Catholic financial professional with advanced training
    (MBA, CPA, etc.), I am often befuddled by the perpetual push to subordinate,
    if not abdicate of the rightful roles of the individual and the Church as the
    primary alleviators of poverty to government.  


    I think that there are several errant assumptions that fuel
    this misplaced faith in the state as omniscient, beneficent and


    The first is a belief that the state can effectively
    identify (authentic) poverty and develop programmatic responses without
    unintended adverse consequences (the breakup of the family and
    consequent embrace of sex outside of marriage). There is no evidence of this;
    indeed the opposite is indicated by ever-increasing expenditures on welfare and
    intractable poverty indicators. Worse, there is a growing realization that such
    programs are merely tools for the creation of dependency that will neuter resistance to the creation of a feudal, secular superstate.


    The second is astounding clerical ignorance of economics
    and failure to obtain sound technical advice. In numerous communications, most
    particularly the inane and ill-advised statement on the economy from the
    1980’s, the Bishops exhibit a materialist and superstitious conception of
    wealth as a tangible commodity that can be measured, transferred, divided, alienated (from
    its creator) and distributed (all without consequence).  The economically literate realize wealth is
    often ethereal, fragile, immoveable, indivisible and personal-and ignoring these attributes results in its diminution or destruction. On a macroeconomic level,
    none of the massive and consistently asserted as inadequate state welfare
    expenditures can be funded without distortive, progressive taxes that reduce
    and disincentivize production and innovation and increase avoidance activities.

    The third idea, albeit an implicit one is that state
    mandated redistribution is “justice”. Long after the Democrats adopted abortion as a sacrament, Catholic politicians and clergy-like
    Cardinal Bernardin created moral confusion with abstractions like that seamless garment drivel. It was offered as a safe haven of prudential judgement for nominal Catholics whose allegiance was more to leftist politics than
    the Church. A more cynical view would be
    some clerics promoted partisan politics under the cloak of spiritual authority.
    The time for a moral clarity and unified resistance was thirty-five years ago,
    now it’s very-and possibly too-late.


    Make no mistake; Obama is vigorously attempting to assert state
    supremacy over the Church.  In this he
    resembles Henry the Eighth, who was able to utilize his power to launch
    centuries of slaughter, pillage and oppression against the Church.  

    The Bishops (then and some now) seem to have learned nothing
    about the dangers inherent in an all-powerful government from history.  Unlike Henry, Obama already has a core of followers openly and seethingly contemptuous of the Church. Ironically, the
    so-called Catholic Campaign for Human Development paid for some of the Alinsky
    training that allowed him to identify the Church as target to freeze.  


    I hope the Bishops understand that episcopal malfeasance has
    quite possibly enabled the formation of a black hole of state power-and  we are dangerously close to the “event
    horizon”-and Obama may not be a temporary opponent, but the first leader of a new
    period of official hostility-thought impossible after JFK’s election in 1960.
    For some reason, the Bishops treat the state as a bonsai tree easily contained by
    artful pruning-oblivious to the fact that a secular superstate is always a
    jealous god that allows no other.

    • Jaeckerl

      This response really nails some key points, and I was impressed by the writer’s knowledge that back in the 60s, the Church really did “kick in” to foment a movement that would, in time develop into ACORN.  The state is ill equipped to truly help people; it’s works are ultimately self-serving, and as such designed to expand widespread dependency on the state.

      Opportunity knocks, because the State is no good at practically everything it does; or at best certainly is not cost-effective.  If the Church, and by that I mean those people professing belief in Jesus Christ as Lord, and in the Holy Bible as the Word of God would become active in identifying and responding to people/problems that governments cannot or will not address, the failure that is the welfare state need not wait for collapse under its own weight to be rendered irrelevant.  No doubt that many, many people must invest their time, treasure, and talent rather than placing all their hopes in a temporary regime change.  Extra-governmental/voluntary/Church outreach aimed initially at those falling through the cracks of the welfare state, would be in stark contrast to the functioning of the state.  We must try to share our faith with those we help, who are open to it.  Maintaining true compassion in formulating and undertaking such missions for the greater glory of God would guide the next steps, and without actually trying to deliberately, I’m convinced we could put the state out of the compassion business.  Skeptical?  Remember those loaves and fish…. 

    • Top8305

      Clear, concise, cogent. Outstanding observations; thank you very much for calling it like it is.

  • ChrisPineo

     People need to Digg these articles and get the conversation expanding to include the masses.

  • I am in communication with my bishop on this very topic.  My contention is that as long as the agencies run by the Church accept federal monies, they are compromising the Catholic nature of these agencies.  We need to wean ourselves from these funds.  
    His Excellency disagrees.

  • crakpot

    I think the main immorality with the welfare state is that the ends do not justify the means.   It is not charity if the IRS forces it from my hands.   Every dollar they take away is another dollar not available to go into the collection basket at mass.   I should be able to choose.

  • Kenvanos

    Having compassion for the poor is one thing, but welfare is not best for the poor. Welfare encourages dependency, irresponsibility, laziness, out-of-wedlock babies, and a sense of entitlement. Welfare will ultimately fail like the way of communism.

  • What really disturbs me is when the argument comes against government duty – defending our country from enemies and defending the border.  This generally comes from persons who benefit directly when the bureaucracy has so widened itself that the ones who used to basically volunteer their services as part of their vocation now demand competitive market wages for their service.  At a very basic level, they decry defense spending saying the money could be better used for the poor.  All the while, they rake in salaries that leave them well beyond the reach of poverty.  It is a sad day when Catholic Charities are more reliant upon the generosity of the government than the people in the pews.  It is even sadder when they uphold government policies to the detriment of Catholic teaching.

  • Pingback: OBAMA DESTROYS THE FREEDOM OF RELIGION « Obama Against the Church()

  • Bill bannon

    There is no way the Church can replace the government in the areas that Medicaid funds. Vatican City has one billion dollars in investments. One state…Illinois…spends 15 billion a year on medicaid. All US Catholics gave $ 60 million to Haiti after the quake and the Vatican gave $200,000. That is a decimal of a decimal of 1% of US social spending. The Church if it gave away all its savings could only cover 1/15th of Illinois’ yearly Medicaid bill.